DETROIT’S FRIENDLY STORE
Operating in the shadow of the enormous and world-renowned J. L. Hudson Company, Crowley’s earned Detroit’s trade with fine merchandise and good service, all in an atmosphere that made it the Motor City’s “friendly” department store. Generations of customers still hold Crowley’s close in their memories, fondly recalling the store’s ancient wooden escalators, fashionable merchandise and special events like “Breakfast with Santa.”
Wander back in time with historian Bruce Allen Kopytek through the venerable old store and its suburban branches to discover all the things that made Crowley’s such a special retail destination.
I can never go back to my Detroit, that’s for sure. It doesn’t exist anymore, and as time goes by, even the tiniest vestiges of it seem to have vanished at an alarming rate. Only my own memories of my Detroit exist, just like someone’s memories of old Berlin before it was bombed into oblivion or ancient Rome before it was ransacked by barbarians.
My Detroit thrives in the mind as I reminiscence about the past, but even these memories soften and lose focus after so many years. My Detroit might have been like the Detroit that others recall, but they, too, can never return to it physically because it simply isn’t there any longer. For some, the Detroit they call “theirs” (like the one I call “mine”) is too difficult to visit even in the vast world of memory. It can be painful to recall a place that is gone forever. Some even deny that it ever existed at all, claiming that it was nothing more tangible than a mirage on a hot, desert-like day. Still others reminisce more happily, stoically admonishing the old saying “Nothing good lasts forever.”
How did my Detroit look? My Detroit wasn’t a city cut into isolated pieces by the broad, vacant swaths of expressways (though they were being conceived and built at the time). It wasn’t a city of glassy, outrageous or jagged-shaped buildings. It wasn’t even so tall that it inhabited the record books, at least during my lifetime. It was a city of smooth, honed corners and worn bricks. It was old (in reality, Old World) but with a charm that is perhaps its most tragically forgotten aspect; indeed, it is this elusive charm that refuses to surface in any clarity, no matter how hard memory tries to conjure it. It is the charm of little corners, interesting perspectives and burnished images rendered in deep, rich colors placed between the blue of the sky and the varied, Ireland-like greens that covered the earth in my Detroit.
Because I was a young one when I inhabited my Detroit, it seemed like the center of the world. Even after traveling to places much bigger and more important, it was always possible to compare them favorably with the town described by pop radio jingles as “the Motor City.” It had a river (boy, did it ever!); it had skyscrapers—the Penobscot Building being the tallest, which I learned to recognize after my mother pointed out the illuminated red ball surmounting a conical tower at its peak. It had a palatial city hall and courthouse, and almost more importantly, it had what we now call “infill.” This infill didn’t look too important, yet it provided a place for life to exist between all of these monuments. Look at pictures of my Detroit (if you can find them) and you will not see isolated buildings surrounded by parking lots, puddled by the most recent rainfall and strewn with shards of broken glass. Instead, little, old and even shabby buildings formed edges, or “walls” that defined streets and connected various landmarks. I almost forgot to add that in between those important and not-so-important landmarks were the numerous leafy green spaces up to which the streets led.
The names of these streets—Woodward, Randolph, Griswold, Gratiot, Jefferson—and the squares like Grand Circus Park (in my Detroit, you could call a half-circle a “square”) gave importance and meaning to the places my parents took me. When I lived in my Detroit, I was young and didn’t have a care in the world, much less a curiosity for those imposing names and what they meant. To a young boy, it was all so big as to almost be incomprehensible.
I lived on a typical street in my Detroit. My Detroit had a lot of boundaries, real and perceived. Our neat little post–World War II brick bungalow sat on an emerald-green lawn of bent grass, meticulously cared for by my father; he trimmed its sidewalk edges by hand, on his hands and knees, so that it looked like the “whitewalls” that were an aspect of a typically-popular haircut of the day, with well-defined trimming around the ears. Anything beyond this lawn was not our property but the city’s (yet my dad maintained it all so that it looked like it was ours). The garden in back of our house had its own set of boundaries, and for good reason. Behind the garage and at the back was the alley where my neighbors burnt paper in wire baskets and where, weekly, the garbage truck grinded and squeaked along, stopping, starting and swallowing up garbage. Our fence, utterly the same as any other in my Detroit, separated our garden from the alley and from our neighbors’ yards. This silvery boundary (exceptionally so when my father painted it and returned to the house to wash up spattered in silver paint) wasn’t a negative thing—our neighbors in my Detroit were cherished and welcome at any time in our home or yard. The fence simply said “this is mine, and that is yours,” and gave security to children and safety and comfort to pets, even if they—like Rusty, our neighbor’s dog—acted like they’d run like hell and bring terror to any youngsters they encountered if they could get only past the gates.
In my youngest years, I could not venture past these boundaries, but the rule was that after age twelve, I could ride my bike in and across the streets (assuming I practiced the safety rules taught by my parents) that crisscrossed our little neighborhood. The big roads, like Six Mile to the south and Seven Mile to the north, were even bigger boundaries that demanded permission or parental accompaniment to venture beyond.
Church and school in my Detroit were one and the same, local and accessible because they were only four short blocks from home. Our church, the now vacant Our Lady of Good Counsel, had its own boundaries (defined by lawns, flowerbeds with statues and a small parking lot) as well. In my Detroit, you most often walked or rode a bike from place to place. On Sunday mornings, we walked to church past numerous similar houses with gardens and fences, walkways and porches. In all of this, I cannot focus so much on my Detroit’s physical aspects that I forget that there was more often than not a smiling face tending the flowers, cutting the lawn or just relaxing on a glider on a porch, eager to say hello or ask about my family. My Detroit was a community of close-knit neighbors enjoying the same experience of life on that little patch of earth.
My Detroit had its own sounds and smells. I could often smell the cooking of my German American neighbor to the south, and on hot summer evenings, the smell of boiling mash from the Strohs’ brewery filled the air. Not too far away, the Better Made Potato Chip factory, the one with a lift that could tilt a truck of spuds forty-five degrees into the air for quick unloading, emitted a heavenly aroma that couldn’t be avoided and, more often than not, aroused one’s taste buds, and caused intense craving for the locally-made treat.
Above, the sound of airplanes was almost continuous and certainly unavoidable, since the city airport was only blocks away. The racket of one of GM’s large airliners in takeoff might have seemed like a nuisance to strangers, but to us, it was normal and hardly worth noting. In the 1960s, the sound of my Detroit was often touched by sadness because I could not play in the painted sandbox, crafted especially for me by my parents, without hearing the regular twenty-one-gun salutes for the country’s war dead. The sounds of my Detroit carried all sorts of meanings and emotions day in and day out. I believe some would find it strange that an occasional evening pastime in my Detroit was to walk or ride over to see the site of a small-plane crash right in my neighborhood—the scene of a turquoise Piper Cub being hauled out of a tree by a crane resides in my memory, much as a preserved thirty-five-millimeter slide sits in a file-box, waiting to be seen again when it is pulled from its slot.
My Detroit was a place of celebrations, which often bound family and neighbors, if only for a moment. I was fortunate to have parents who were keen on travel, especially a father who documented our journeys with his Bell & Howell camera. On some warm, starlit night after our return from these trips, Dad would erect a screen out back in the garden (the one bordered not just by the afore-mentioned fence but also by my mother’s lovingly cared for roses and lilies) and run an extension cord through a bedroom window to power the projector. It seemed that the whole neighborhood came over, some bringing folding lawn chairs, to watch film of places they could only hope to visit. Mom put out soft drinks and snacks (and maybe some beer for the men), and our backyard was transformed into a homemade cinema, just for one evening.
Overview & Preview
176 Pages – 6″ X 9″ X 3/8″
PUBLISHED BY THE HISTORY PRESS
Chapter 1 My Detroit
Chapter 2 “Forget All Your
Troubles, Forget All
Your Cares . . .”
Chapter 3 Pardridge in a Pear Tree
Chapter 4 The Heart of Detroit
Chapter 5 Rescue Mission
Chapter 6 Family Plot
Chapter 7 The Friendly Store
Chapter 8 A Great Place to Shop
Chapter 9 (A Hunka’) Burnin’ Love
Chapter 10 Detroit’s Own
About the Author
"Success slips away from the sluggard, plays as a will-o’-the-wisp before the dreamer but yields its rewards to the man of energy and determination."
A Biography of Joseph Crowley
"One can imagine the beauty of the Farmer Street side of the structure when it is stated that the corners will be immense granite piers and the entrance will be entirely of glass, forming magnificent show windows ninety-five feet in length, free from any break or obstruction."
The Detroit Free Press
"It is our earnest desire to run this business as to please you best; to make this in truth the one great family store of Michigan; to build up here, in this beautiful city, such a retail enterprise as shall command the enthusiastic pride of every Detroit citizen."
Crowley, Milner & Co.
Signed by the Author